Monthly Archives: December 2007

Another Duck Walks into a Chair Shop…..

I had planned on writing about Gresham’s Law of Tool Quality this week.  I should have looked at the calendar as I made my plans.  I would have seen that posting mid-week as I normally do, would bump me smack into Christmas.  The next week will bump me smack into New Years.  While we are all focused on the holidays this blog will certainly have far fewer readers than usual.  The topic I had planned is very important for tool users and the future of tools.   So, to insure as many as possible read it, I have decided to wait until everyone’s life has settled down.  

Instead, I am going to give you a Christmas present.  I dug deep into the archives of the A Duck Walks into a Chair Shop…., the name of our collection of Windsor chair jokes.  This joke is also a test.  If you get the punch line, you know a lot about Windsor chairs.  If not, you have some homework to do.   

 If you don’t get the joke, here is a clue to the punch line. Go to this link and look closely at the picture on the home page  By the way, if you don’t have a copy of Michael Harding-Hill’s book Windsor Chairs, order one while you are on the site. Harding-Hill is an English antique dealer specializing in antique English Windsors.  His book is very informative, and has great photography of some great English chairs he has owned over the years.  It is a must have in any Windsor chairmaker’s personal library. By the way, as of this writing has 21 copies and lists only 34 copies.   If you dilly-dally and miss out, please do not email me asking where you can get a copy.  I don’t know.  

The joke — After a long and honorable working lifetime ringing the bells of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, Quasimodo is getting along in years and is ready to retire.  He needs to find someone to replace him who has the same bell ringing ability, and the necessary dedication. He places a help wanted advertisement in all the major newspapers in Europe, including London England.    

An English Windsor chairmaker reads the advertisement in the London Times.  The chairmaker has spent his life worshipping trees; asking them what they want to be made into; and not letting customers take the chairs out of the area where the trees grew.  As a result, he has failed financially.  He needs steady work and this job seems to offer him that possibility. After all, Notre Dame has been standing in Paris since it was completed in 1325 AD, and unlike his chair business, probably wouldn’t close.  

The English chairmaker schedules  a job interview with Quasimodo. He travels to Paris and at the time established for his interview  he meets the old bell ringer in the belfry of the cathedral’s south tower. After climbing the 387 steps from the ground to the belfry, the chairmaker is winded.   

After interviewing the chairmaker Quasimodo decides to test his bell ringing abilities.  He demonstrates his technique.  As it is nearing the top of the hour, he chooses to ring the bourdon bell named Emmanuel, which weighs 13 tons, and is used to mark the hours.  He backs up as far as he can in the high tower room.  He cocks his head backwards and runs full speed at the bell.  As he makes his last stride at the bell, he snaps his head forward and slams his face into the huge bronze surface.  A glorious and deep note, as clear and fine as from a crystal goblet, drifts across the roof tops of Paris.  “Bonnnngggg.”   

You try it,” directs Quasimodo to the English chairmaker.  The chairmaker backs up as he has just seen Quasimodo do.  He cocks his head backward, and runs full tilt at the bell. One step away from the bell the chairmaker snaps his head forward and slams his face into the bell.  All he obtains is a dull “Thud.”

 Quasimodo scowls and says,  “No, it’s done  like this.”  He backs up all the way to the edge of the  belfry gallery.  He cocks his head backwards and charges full speed at Emmanuel.  One step away, he snaps his head forward and slams his face into the 26,000 pounds of cast bronze.  A deep throated note of incredibly beauty makes the stone tower tremble, and drifts over Paris.  “Bonnnngggg.”   

“Try it again,” Quasimodo directs the English chairmaker.  Doing his best to imitate the old gray haired bell ringer, the chairmaker backs up as far as he possibly can.  He cocks his head as he saw Quasimodo do.  He charges at full speed and slams his face into Emmanuel.  All he succeeds in eliciting from the huge bronze bell is a dull  “Thud.”  

Exasperated, Quasimodo shows the English chairmaker a third time  how to ring the bell.  He repeats his unique technique.  Once again, a deep note of incredible clarity wafts across Paris.   Seeing all prospects of landing this job evaporate before his eyes, the frantic chairmaker backs up again as far as he can.  He cocks his head back so far it touches between his shoulder blades, and his neck hurts. To gain additional speed he uses one foot to push off the tower’s stone balustrade.  His lungs draw in and push out as much air as fast as possible.  His heart nearly explodes as it pumps energy-rich blood to the chairmaker’s leg muscles.   

The chairmaker charges at the bell with all the speed his body can achieve.   However, with his head cocked back so far he cannot see.  He misses the bell and runs right by it.   The English chairmaker is still moving at full stride when he arrives at the balustrade on the other side of the south tower.  The balustrade catches him at waist height.  His upper body pivots forward and he is hurled out of the tower.  His momentum completes his spin in mid-air.  He is now face up as he falls the full 69 meters of the monumental south tower that dominates the skyline of Isle-de-la-Cite.  As he falls, in his last conscious moment he looks upward at the blue sky that appears to be racing away from him.  

The chairmaker lands on the pavement far below.   SPLAT! He is plastered all over the sidewalk. 

 Coincidently, at this time two American chairmakers are touring the cathedral.  They are enjoying a stroll around the grounds when they come upon the lifeless form of the English chairmaker.  They stand over the body, its sightless eyes staring glassily skyward.     

“Oh, look,” says one American chairmaker nonchalantly to the other.  “An English chairmaker.” 

 “How do you know?” inquires the other? 

“It’s obvious.” replies the first.  “Back splat.”

If you would like to receive periodic updates, tips, tool reviews, and new sources, that are outside the scope of this blog, join our mailing list by emailing me at 

The Burning of the Back Boards

The year 2007 has come to an end.  For most of you that event will not happen until January 1.  However, the 2007 school year at The Windsor Institute ended when we completed  the last day of the last class.  That was Friday, December 7.

Everyone who has studied at The Institute knows we love to celebrate.  So, there is no chance we would let the school year wrap up without acknowledging it with a ceremony.  We have an end of year tradition we have been following since we were located in Portsmouth.  The tradition began the evening after the last class of 1995 had left.  The late Sir Richard Nichols had been in the class. Being good friends with me and Susanna, he stayed behind to help me clean up the shop.

We gathered up the old back boards. These are strips of pine 4 inches wide by 24 inches long.  To protect the bench tops we place back boards under seats and arms when drilling holes.  After a year of service, these boards are pretty shot.  They are full of holes and look more like Swiss cheese than pine.

Sir Richard and I tossed the back boards into the stove where they rested on top of the coals.  As the boards began to smolder, Sir Richard and I  paused and found ourselves staring at them as they burst into flames.  For me, it was an emotional moment.  I become very attached to our students, and I realized that each  hole in the boards had been made by one of the guys who had studied with me that year.   As the boards burned, the white pine turned black.   As the wood was consumed by the flames, the holes became bigger and bigger.  Eventually, the boards curled and broke into coals.

back-boards-in-the-flames.JPGIn 1996  we left the crowded city and moved to a rural area in nearby Hampton.  With no neighbors to be offended by the smoke from burning our scrap and shavings,   we built a brick incinerator behind The Institute.  Every morning of every  class  we touch off a fire to dispose of the wood from the day before.   

As 1996  came to an end, I recalled the emotional experience  I had the year before with Sir Richard, watching the back boards burn.  This time, I asked the entire class to stay behind for a while to burn the boards with me in the incinerator.  The tradition of burning the back boards on the last day of the last class, with the last group of students was born. 

In 1997, we expanded the tradition. During the year, we asked each person in each class to sign a back board.  That way, although they were not there with the last class, they were with us symbolically.  During the burning, I passed out the class rosters,  sheets of paper  bearing the names of the students in each particular class.  After announcing the class date and reading the roster of names, the chairmaker was instructed to toss the paper into the fire, and then, follow it with a back board.  As the spirit moved, anyone attending was also invited to throw in a back board.  That year, we also named the ceremony, calling it by the very imaginative name The Burning of the Back Boards.

We further expanded the tradition by ordering pizza for the class and having supper together after the Burning.  Lord Woody Leland, a professional photographer began to attend every Burning and making a photographic record of it for me.  I have about a dozen photographic CDs of annual Burnings. 

burning-2007.JPGStudents who attended a Burning appear to experience  the same emotions I do.  It’s understandable.  Most of our students become very attached to The Institute and have very fond memories of their times here.   That is why many former students now call or email to determine the date and approximate time of our Burning.  Adjusting for time zones, they burn their own shops’ back boards as close as possible to the time we are burning ours.  So late afternoon December 7, chairmakers around the country were lighting fires in solidarity with their colleagues in Hampton.  Certainly, they thought about their times here, just as I was thinking about the events and people of 2007.

The group that celebrated the end of the year with us was the December 3 Balloon back chair class.  This was an unusual group of guys.  For starters, Alan Michelson was the only one not in the Royal Orders, and even for him,  this was his fourth class.  The amount of chairmaking experience  in the classroom meant the talent level was very high.  Several of the students were professional chairmakers, and the rest had made a large quantity of chairs over the years.  

Because everyone had been here so many times, it was like a reunion.  We the staff,  knew everyone very well.  Most of them had been in previous classes together and thus,  they all knew each other, as well. They did a lot of  socializing in the evening.  They went to the Portsmouth Woodcraft together, to a local antique tool dealer, and to favorite restaurants. Because this was not a first advanced class for any of the Balloon back students, we did not have a raising.  This was the first time in my memory that has happened.

The Balloon back is our newest chair class.  Teaching it for the very first time, we were bound to discover some wrinkles that needed to be ironed out.  We were also bound to have forgotten something in our planning.   The level of talent in a group like this one rolls right over these bumps.  In fact, these guys were  experienced enough to  help us tune up our teaching for the next time. 

It may seem like these guys were short changed, not to receive the finished product.  Going in, these guys all knew this.  They also knew that a first class is an exciting time of creativity and invention.  In a first class the students who attend are elbow to elbow with us, and see us doing things that  other classes will never experience.  They get to look behind the scenes and learn a lot of the tricks we use to develop a class.

In fact, during this class I came up with a really neat trick to check the alignment of spindle holes in the seat.  I doubt this development would have dawned on me  at any other time than during  the unique, creative environment of first classes. Future students in classes that present an opportunity to use this technique will learn it, but the guys in the December 3 class were here when we developed it.  They were the ones that had the opportunity to test and prove it.

Frankly, we were nervous about a class in which students each made a pair of chairs.  We do it in the 2 Kids Chairs class, but this was still our first time for adult sized chairs.  We worry no more.  Everyone completed both chairs. In fact, our class photo contained so many balloon backs, we had trouble fitting them all in.

While all but one student were already in the Royal Orders, we did have a ceremony.  Sir Kurt Rothermel was both earled and duked.  Sir Kurt had done his required teaching stint last summer.  His daughter Kelly took the July 9 sack back class and Sir Kurt helped teach it.  

Having all but one in the Royal Orders made for a very strange ceremony, as everyone but Alan participated in Kurt’s honor cordon.  Alan sat all alone at a bench watching the shenanigans. We did joke a lot with him about being the sole peasant in this crowd of royalty, and wondering if the assembled multitude can be made up of just one guy. 

 * * * *

David Elsey and his chairmaking business were featured on page one of the Sunday business section of the Sikeston (MO) Standard-Democrat.  Dave was in the October 15 sack back class.  Dave’s passion is for rocking chairs, and he has made them his specialty.  He already offers sculpted rockers and took sack back as a prelude to, you guessed it – attending the May 5 Windsor rocking chair class.  The article points out that Dave will make you a sack back if you want one.

* * * *

Maine Antiques Digest reported a new record price for an antique Windsor.  October  26 Northeast Auctions sold a sack back branded by William Seaver of Boston for $160,000. The buyer was a Canadian collector.  Windsor scholar Charles Santore and Windsor dealer David Schorsch were under bidders.  The chair had been in a private collection.  The collector had bought it at a Hartford, CT antique show about 20 years ago  for $6,000.  Twenty years ago, $6,000 for a sack back was still a jaw dropping price. 

The previous record for a Windsor was set in June 2001 at an auction in Bronxville, NY.  That record too,  was for a sack back.  That time, the above mentioned David Schorsch was the successful buyer.  

Some time after making the record setting sack back, William Seaver formed a chairmaking partnership with James Frost, appropriately named Seaver and Frost.  The partnership only lasted from 1800 – 1803, but during that time the pair made the balloon back side chair with crinoline stretcher on which our balloon back chair is patterned.

* * * *

Sir Mike Lynch emailed us the news that he and his wife Juliana are expecting a third child this March.  Writes Sir Mike, “I thought that I was the fertile knight, but my wife quickly changed that to the not so bright knight.”  Last year Sir Mike’s other two children visited him while he was taking a class at The Institute.  They are 4  year old Mark, and Sarah 1 ½.

If you would like to receive periodic updates, tips, tool reviews, and new sources, that are outside the scope of this blog, join our mailing list by emailing me at


The Modern History of the Wooden Spoke — Part II

This post is a continuation of the previous.  If you have not that one, you may want to begin with it, and then read this.  Mike 

I have described else where how John Kelsey (the founding editor of Fine Woodworking) putErnie Conover and me together, and how Ernie and I became lifelong friends.  In 1981 Ernie and I also started a school, and for the first time in history, we developed a regular schedule of Windsor chairmaking classes. In doing so, we faced the same problem I had working with Dale Nish.  Where do we find a supply of tools?  

Ernie provided the solution.  He would make them.  Ernie ran Conover Woodcraft, a company that already manufactured tools.  He would add chairmaker tools to his product line.  Like Leon Robbins a decade later, Ernie did it the right way.  Before going into production he found out from a tool user (me) what features each tool required to function well.  This method of tool development eliminates junk.  Ernie only had to tweak his prototypes to arrive at tools that were  as good as the ones the old guys worked with.    

Ernie sent me the first spoke shave off the production line.  I adjusted  it, and first pass it cut as well as my antique shave.  I retired my old shave, and for many years used the very first one Ernie had produced and given to me.  

Ernie’s shave was made of a very hard tropical wood known as Indian teak.  I’m sure that was just the wood’s commercial name and it was not really teak.   He reasoned that it would wear better than the traditional beech.   In time, even this wood would develop a dip in the sole from whittling spindles.  Ernie solved the problem in a later production run, by inletting a strip of brass into the sole.  He held the brass strip in place with epoxy.  

However, his method of securing the cutter, and adjusting it was the truly genius innovation that endures today.   Ernie inserted two pieces of round brass  into the stock.  Each brass insert had two holes, one larger than the other.   A threaded cutter tang passed through the larger hole, and  an off-the-shelf  brass battery nut was screwed to the top of the tang.  This secured the cutter in place.    

The smaller diameter hole in the brass insert was threaded and had an Allen screw fitted in it.  The Allen screw could be adjusted up and down to increase or decrease  its projection from the bottom of the brass insert.  The brass battery nuts pulled the cutter up securely against the Allen screws.  Thus, adjustment was very easy, very accurate, and secure.  It was clever development, and typical Ernie Conover. 

Ernie and I taught lots of classes together and he provided a lot of tools (especially spoke shaves) to our students.  Time passed.  Ernie put much of his talent and genius into developing a wood bed lathe that itself became a classic.  Eventually, Ernie sold Conover Woodcraft.  Someone else was now producing the lathe, and the spoke shave.   

About the same time, Susanna and I founded The Windsor Institute. Once again, our students needed tools.  For a spoke shave, I directed them to the company who had bought out Ernie.  Surprise, surprise.  As in 1980, I found myself surrounded by students who could not make their brand new  shaves work.  Some how, the tool had changed.  Not being  someone who used tools, and not knowing how a spoke shave worked, it was predictable that the new maker would botch a perfectly good design.  

When students put the tool to use, it quickly choked.  The cutter’s bezel and the wear (the upper surface of the inlet cut out of the stock) should diverge. This creates an increasingly wider passage, which allows the shaving to find its way out of the shave. Think of the shaving passing up from the bottom of a funnel and out the wider top.  On this botched shave, the two surfaces actually converged.  Thus, the shaving was pushed into gap that grew increasingly narrow.  Think of pushing the shaving down into a funnel.

 As in 1980, I once again began each class over hauling everyone’s spoke shave.  At the time, Dave Wachnicki was working with me as a chairmaking instructor.  He and I performed many of these surgeries each class.  Fixing shaves started Dave off on a quest to understand shaves, some what similar to the one that sent me off to understand Windsors. Dave began to examine spoke shaves (old and new) up close and in detail.  Eventually, he began to try his hand at making them.   

Around 1999, Dave went off on his own and started Dave’s Shaves.  The Windsor Institute provided him with a steady flow of customers, and he provided The Windsor Institute with a supply of very dependable spoke shaves.  While I missed working with Dave, I certainly I did not miss overhauling a bunch of shaves every Monday morning.  To this day, Dave’s shaves are the official shave of The Windsor Institute.  

Dave made his own wooden spoke shave bodies. However, he purchased his cutters from the guy who had bought out Ernie.  Thus, like Ernie’s before him, Dave relied on the same brass battery nut technique.  He also used the same distance between holes that Ernie had established 10 years earlier.  

Dave had replaced Ernie’s brass adjustment insert with a very clever and simple system.  He placed two Phillips head wood screws into the stock under the cutter.  Adjustment was made by simply advancing or backing out the screws.  It was as easy and sure as Ernie’s method, and less work.   

As a furniture maker turned toolmaker, Dave was real fussy about his tools’ appearance. Perfectly selected wood with a perfect finish became his trade mark.  While Dave’s shaves work every bit as well as the old ones, his are also works of art.  

The company that had bought out Ernie eventually went out of business.  With it, went Dave’s source of cutters.  He sought out Ron Hock,  and worked with Ron to develop a cutter patterned on the old Conovers.  Dave’s new source retained the threaded tang and the same distance between them.  However, as Dave developed both larger and smaller shaves, he needed blades of varying sizes.  He worked out these dimensions himself.  

Dave’s success in making shaves began to attract others who also began to produce and sell  these tools.  Jack Goosman was one of the first.   Starting in 1996 Jack took several classes with us and saw the tools we were using.  Jack tried his hand at dealing in antique tools, and brought his wares by each class to sell to students. I’ll confess to having bought my share from him.  Next, Jack decided to  produce new tools. His first effort was  a copy of a Stanley  85.  As with his antique tools, he experienced some success by bringing his shaves to classes and selling them to our students.  I still have the one he gave me.   

Jack was both under capitalized and unable to make his own parts. He jobbed out all the operations. This left him with little profit, and he eventually stopped making his shave.  However, he was the first in a string of people that having become aware of the market we had created for spoke shaves, sought to enter it.  

One result of these new entries was an increased buzz about wooden spoke shaves among mainstream woodworkers.  Awareness of this type of tool grew, as more woodworkers used it and found out effective it was.  The magazines too, learned about this heretofore forgotten tool and joined the chatter.  They published articles about shaves. They did tool reviews.  They included woodworker-made shaves in their sections of reader work.   

This increased noise about wooden spoke shaves in mainstream woodworking  attracted the attention of  larger, tool making companies.  Like sharks attracted to smaller fish feeding, they moved into the market.  Sensing the chance to cash in on the growing number of chairmakers being trained here, they tried their hand at developing wooden spoke shaves.  One company even developed a low angle spoke shave with a metal body.  The same company is now offering a kit for people who want to make their own wooden shave.  

In the next posting I plan to write about Gresham’s Law of  tools.  In it I will look into the future and make predictions for the wooden spoke shave.  For now,  it is important when you see these shaves to remember that there was a time when this tool was forgotten and unknown. It was brought back from oblivion and reestablished to provide a source for my

Windsor chairmaking students.  In 1981

Ernie Conover worked out a practical design that continues to dominate.  As I have noted previously, chairmakers who are new to the craft assume the tools and sources were always here.   Not so.  It all has its origins in the

Windsor chairmaking class that I developed in 1980 and continue to teach at The Windsor Institute. 

If you would like to receive periodic updates, tips, tool reviews, and new sources, that are outside the scope of this blog, join our mailing list by emailing me at

The Modern History of the Wooden Spoke Shave — Part I

My surgeon delayed my shoulder surgery until after the first of the year.  I don’t yet have a firm date.  In anticipation of a long recovery, I have prepared a multi-part series on steam bending that I had planned on having my son  post for me during this period.  I will still do that, but I cannot tell you for certain when the series will start. When it does begin, you will know I am out of circulation. Meanwhile, thank you to all the people who have had the same operation and who wrote to express their best wishes and encouragement.    

Telling the story of Leon Robbins working with me to develop the Crown Plane travisher and compass plane caused me to think about other chairmaking tools that used to be unknown, but are now readily available.  As I pointed out, all roads in Windsor chairmaking lead back to The Windsor Institute. However, people who are new to the craft, or have come to it in the past 15 years or so,  assume these tools have always been available.   

Not so.  There was a time when many chairmaking tools were not only unavailable, but few woodworkers had ever even heard of them.  After disappearing for a century or more, they are again being produced because of The Windsor Institute.  Over the years I actively sought people with the skill to make tools. I worked with them to develop their products. Then, The Institute provided a  ready market of customers to them.  This last point is important, because without the steady pool of customers created by our students, these tool makers would have failed financially.  

Below is the modern history of the wooden spoke shave.   When I first started making chairs and did not know much about tools, I used a drawknife for most work.  While very dependant on the draw knife, I could not help but be  intrigued by the New York City Chairmakers Society’s coat of arms from 1825.  I had found a copy of the banner in Thomas Ormsbee’s book   Early American Furniture Makers.  It bore a bit brace crossed with a wooden bodied spoke shave.   

I understood the importance of the brace to chairmakers, but the meaning of the spoke shave eluded me.  I mentioned the coat of arms to a friend who restored buildings and who was rediscovering 18th building techniques (as I was rediscovering Windsor chairmaking techniques.)  We both did a lot of poking around looking for and acquiring old tools. I remember his comment about shaves, “Every woodworker must have used them. What else could explain why I see them everywhere?” 

He had lit a light bulb for me. As soon as possible, I went out to some of my favorite haunts and purchased a likely wooden spoke shave.  I ignored the shaves with cast iron bodies, because I knew they were developed nearly a century after Windsor chairmaking had disappeared, and had never been used by chairmakers.   

(As an aside,  metal shaves are poor tools in comparison  to their wooden counterparts. Look at the cutter in a metal shave.  It is set at 45 degrees rather than at only several degrees.  This high cutting angle means it is really an odd ball plane, rather than a true shave.  Because of this  high angle cut, metal shaves will not pare well on end grain.  They chatter and make dust.   

Look too,  at the sole. It is only a fraction of the width of the sole on a wooden shave.  The narrow sole and high cutting angle both require more force, and make the tool harder to control.  On our tool list we specifically tell students to avoid a metal shave.  Some people ignore us.  When they observe  the difference between their results and that of their bench mates, they usually toss the metal one back into their tool box and take a wooden class shave down from the wall.) 

I tried the antique wooden shave I had bought  in my chairmaking.  Scales fell from my eyes.  No wonder chairmakers held this tool in such high esteem that they would choose to cross it with a bit brace on their coat of arms!  I immediately understood that for a chairmaker, a wooden spoke shave was a crucial  tool.  Also, I quickly learned that it was the nearest thing  to a woodworking magic wand.  With it, I could almost will away wood.  My hand became an extension of my eye.  I envisioned the result I wanted and it occurred.   Wood disappeared effortlessly leaving behind a surface far smoother than anything I had ever achieved previously. I recognized the spoke shave’s gentle track. It was the same track I saw on all the antique chairs I examined.  I had found my way home.   

I taught my first Windsor chairmaking class in 1980 at Brigham Young University.  In doing so I taught the very first Windsor chairmaking class in history.  The old guys didn’t teach classes, and in 1980, as a Windsor chairmaker, I was working pretty much all alone.  Dale Nish had invited me to be a presenter at the Woodworking West: State of the Art conference.  He also asked if I would stay an additional  week and teach.  I agreed and we set a limit of 20 students. He called a couple of weeks later to tell me the class was full.  He had so many others clamoring to get in on the experience,  that he was inviting me to stay an additional week and teach a second class.  

Dale asked me to provide a list of tools the students would need, and he would acquire them.  I perused a Woodcraft Supply catalog and sent Dale a list of stock numbers for their draw knife, scorp (inshave),  etc.  At the time the catalog also carried a wooden spoke shave made by (I believe) Marple.   I included it on the list, as well.  Dale bought a quantity of each tool, enough for a class of 20 students.  

None of the tools worked.  In fact, I concluded that they were not really tools, as the nature of a tool is to accomplish work.  These items performed very poorly, or not at all.  Ergo,  they were not tools,  just bad reproductions  that looked somewhat like my tools. I commented that “These items were completely useless.  They would not work wood, and were not heavy enough to use as a boat anchor.” 

This posting is about wooden spoke shaves.  So, let me focus on the problems with the pitiful device we were trying to use, and ignore the scorp, draw knife, etc. for another time.   Remember, I had selected these items from a catalog, and had only seen pictures of them.  Until this class at BYU, I had never used one, or even held one in my hands.   

I showed the students how to whittle spindles using my antique shave, and they set about to do the same.  Soon, I was overwhelmed by guys asking for help. Each time one tried to use a shave, it rolled toward the user and the cutter pulled loose.  For the first time, I actually examined one of the items (remember, I am not calling it a tool, as to be called a tool, it must work.)  The object’s sole was round, very much like that of the compass shave Dave Wachnicki makes.  The cutter’s tangs were square and loosely fitted into round holes.   

When a student tried to whittle with the devise by pulling it, it rolled forward on the round sole. The square tangs then pulled loose from the square holes.  I compared the object to my shave.  Mine had a flat sole.  The tangs, while square, were also tapered, larger in section at the bottom, and smaller at the top.  These tapered square tangs were fitted into holes that were themselves both square and tapered. This type of hole is known as “broached.” Thus, the tangs of my cutter, fit securely into their broached holes with  a self-locking friction fit.    

One by one, I performed meatball surgery on the so-called shaves.   I planed off the round sole and glued on a flat piece of wood.  I stuffed savings around the tangs to create some holding power.  Multiply the time I needed for this surgery by 20 students, and you can see that these items were a disaster.  I was frustrated and  Dale Nish wasn’t so pleased about the money he had spent to buy these useless implements.   

When I returned home I contacted Dick Dabrowski, a friend of mine who was at the time vice-president of Woodcraft Supply in Woburn, MA. Dick now owns Shaker Workshops and Cohassett Colonials.  I chided him for carrying that item in his catalog.  Dick explained that the stock had a round sole because the factory  had made it by turning it in a lathe! The object immediately disappeared from Woodcraft’s catalog, and to the best of my knowledge Marple soon dropped it from production.  

I had learned a painful, but important lesson.  A lot of hand tools look good in pictures, but are really just junk.  If they work at all, they only work poorly.  Why?  Most tools are produced by people who don’t use them, and who do not seek  input from people who do use them.  For example, Marple did not understand why turning a spoke shave body in a lathe and obtaining a round sole was a bad idea.  After all, the turned stock looked something like a spoke shave.  As a result of no user input during the design, many items you see for sale just look like tools.  They are not tools, because they fall outside the most important part of the definition of a tool – it must perform its intended job.  

I wish I could say that 27 years later the situation had gotten better, but I can’t.  A lot of hand tools are still junk, and you buy them at your peril.  If you do, you lose four  ways.  1.) You waste money.  2.) You can’t do good work.  3.) Your self esteem is damaged. You see hand tools at work in the magazines, and assume your poor results are your deficiency.  4.) You end up relying  on machines to do everything, no matter how inefficiently you are working.

If you would like to receive periodic updates, tips, tool reviews, and new sources, that are outside the scope of this blog, join our mailing list by emailing me at